The Graffiti Wars: Punks vs Homeowners in Little Portugal

The other day, my friend was showing me a series of kids’ murals displayed at Ontario Place. He liked the idea of using whimsical portraits to boost the appearance of neglected public places. In fact, he decided to replicate it on his own property. Fed up with the unsolicited graffiti on his neighbours’ garages, he believed that an artwork would improve the look of his garage and discourage potential vandalism.

New Futures, 2018, Ontario Place, a selection of murals completed by youth, aged 9-13, from the Street Art summer camp at Design Exchange in Toronto.

This “decorate to discourage” movement has become highly noticeable in my own neighbourhood, Little Portugal. Its back alleys, populated with countless garages, is one of the places where this graffiti trend has taken off. As a result, many garage doors are now covered in all kinds of artworks. The residents seem to like the bright and shiny door paintings. Other than broadcasting ‘wannabe cool’, the colourful doors also scream “do not touch”.

Commissioned graffiti showcasing idyllic artworks.

Regardless of how effective the anti-graffiti formula is, the problem with commissioned or DIY artworks is that they are visually and conceptually boring. Typically, they lack the edge of real graffiti. It’s like they’re holding something back by trying to appeal to toddlers and adults alike.

Commissioned graffiti with lots of attention to detail and also with an abundance of time and tools and hopefully cash.

Paul Mezei, a principal of Relish Design in Little Portugal, finds the idea of commissioned graffiti contradictory: “That art form is mutually exclusive of being sanctioned so officially. It loses its activist foundation when it is sponsored by capitalist consumption”. Indeed, it’s a paradox that an art form invented to violate private ownership of urban scenery is now being used to do the opposite: to protect private property from anticipated vandalism.

Obviously, what the commissioned graffiti lacks in activism, it compensates with materials. The hired artists have plenty of time and tools at their disposal, which is probably one of the reasons their work appears too polished, or in other words, fake. Without its rawness, the artwork lacks its underlying vitality and validity.

Steve Quinlan, a Professor Emeritus with the Faculty Of Design at OCAD University, believes that this type of surface treatment is best developed organically and not in a contrived way: “I always stressed with my students a need to consider an ‘honest’ use of material (like the architect or industrial designer would use real wood, or real metal and not use a synthetic to simulate it—let the plastic look like plastic and not fake some kind of wood grain).” In that case, the honest use of a garage door is keeping its appearance true to the original material instead of turning it into a retractable painting.

Unsolicited graffiti executed with a limited amount of time and tools and no cash.

Whether it’s a distinctive image or type, the full control over time and material can indeed dilute the urgency of the artworks. Instead of being vibrant, they can appear stale. Such lack of constraints can often become an unexpected detriment.

Certainly, a turf war between commissioned and non-commissioned graffiti is on. Yet, the best outcome is when graffiti progresses spontaneously: when diverse artists randomly add a splash of their own originality to the existing, multi-layered yet open surface.

Scrubbing the neighbourhood of its graffiti is obviously not the answer. But what if Little Portugal’s residents relaxed and let their graffiti evolve on its own and trust that there’s no such thing as a finished product? Every single graffiti is a work-in-progress that can be seen as a chain of surprises, instead of offences. When my friend decides to cover his garage doors with a gigantic doodle, I hope it will become an invitation, not an obstruction, to his graffiti transformation.